In the neighborhood this holiday weekend, the big hit of the moment is the smash flick, "Dial M for Murder," starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland. It's in something called 3-D; people who have seen it say it's a great experience. If you can't get in there because of the long lines, another film that opened recently to substantial advertising is "Song of the South," which boasts the number "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah." It's a Walt Disney production that arrives in time for the holiday season and promises sweetness and light, or as one ad says, it will take us back "to the laughing place." "Song of the South" features the wise sayings of a darky named Uncle Remus and his animal friends.
These are typical of the public offerings these days. The papers report plans for a new three-hour musical to be shown over public television. It's to be called, "The '50s: Moments to Remember," and will offer popular music of three decades ago along with film clips of movies and TV programs of that time. Arthur Godfrey will be host. The show will be taped in the main ballroom of New York's Waldorf-Astoria. If Guy Lombardo were still around, surely he'd be directing the band.
All American, it seems is preparing for a step back into the supposedly more innocent past -- and appears eager to get there as fast as possible. The other day an aide to one of the Republicans who will assume new power in the Senate, thanks to the election outcome signaling the advent of the new political era, was talking about the promise of the Reagan presidency and what it means for the country. We're going back to the '50s, this person said, and it will be great.
For a young energetic country with an eye always fixed firmly on the future, America strangely relishes the backward look. We are continually discovering grandeur that never really was grand, perfection that never was at all perfect, in some not-so-distant decade. Nostalgia grips us, and we seem to need to believe there was a time not so long ago when all was well, when everything worked, when there were no problems we couldn't solve, when our leaders were splendid and our lives pleasant and our nation supreme. Although Camelot never existed, we keep searching for it and proclaiming to have found it despite all evidence to the contrary. But of all the yearnings to return to a mythgical recent better time, none is more misguided than this new hunger to rediscover the wonders of the '50s.
The senator's aide who extolled the '50s doesn't remember those years, having been born only toward the end of them, but legend and word-of-mouth report they were contented, prosperous, happy times, one nation united and at peace with itself and the world. What a misreading of history.
How that impression ever took hold in the first place is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. The '50s strike me as just about the worst of times -- years of fear and tension, repression and intolerance, both sexual and racial, on a major scale. They were the years of Joe McCarthy and character assassinations, of Korea and the human-wave infantry assaults launched by the Chinese against out troops along the Yalu, of building bomb shelters in the back yard and stockpiling food for them, of the Rosenbergs' trial and execution, of the everywhere perceived and omnipresent threat of monolithic communism, of the terrors of The Bomb and the most rigid expressions of Cold War mentality, of a strain of political viciousness virtually unmatched in this century that permeated much of Washington and damaged or destroyed the careers of distinguished public servants.
They were also the years in which America continued to lose its innocence. We learned, with fascinated horror, thanks to the Kefauver investigating committee hearings, of the existence of the organize crime syndicate (later to be called the Mafia) and its connection with politcal corruption and wholesale murders across the nation, and we discovered, or should have, that all was not tranquil among the races. It was the '50s that saw the beginning of what came to be the civil rights revolution that would transform much of American life: building since the Civil War, the inevitable civil rights confrontatnion between the federal government and the states occurred in September of 1957, in Little Rock -- and it was the '50s that saw racial violence stain the land in the aftermath of the Freedom Marches and burning of buses in the South.
Some model of normality to wish to recapture and relive 30 years later.
When it was ending, J. William Fulbright, whose words uttered in the Senate throughout that decade were both filled with wisdom and largely ignored, delivered an epitaph for the era. In the 1950s, he said, the people had gotten what they wanted, a time "when they were at liberty to stop thinking any more . . . [when] they could bask in the artificial sunlight of a government which did not bother them with serious things." The '50s had been a time of "luxurious torpor," he said, and added:
"What show of reflection and choice was there in much of the decade of the 1950s when the word 'egghead' became a word of abuse; when education was neglected; when intellectual excellence became a cause for suspicion; when the man in public life, or the writer, or the teacher, who dared articulate an orignial thought risked being accused of subversion? What show of reflection and choice was there in this period when the man of distinction was the man who had a station wagon, a second car plated with chrome, a swimming pool, a tax-free expense account, and a 21-inch television set with the 36-inch star on the screen?"
You'll excuse the abrupt break in thought here, but there's another new show opening in the neighborhood that I want to see and just have time to make if I hurry. It's called "Fantasia," another Disney movie with lots of music and animals -- this one has a mouse leading an orchestra in the hall of a mountain king. No, this one doesn't date from the '50s. They say this one goes all the way back to the early '40s, just before World War II began. Good times, take it away. Happy days are here again.